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Why So Few Police Officers Who Kill Are Convicted Of A Crime

Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

From Texas Standard:

On Saturday, 15-year-old Jordan Edwards went to a party near Balch Springs, Texas. He didn’t make it home that night. Officer Roy Oliver of the Balch Springs Police Department was responding to the sound of gunshots at the party when he opened fire on a car, killing Edwards, who was a passenger.

The officer reported that the vehicle was moving toward him aggressively. Now the police department says video evidence contradicts the initial report.


Oliver has been fired from the department, and reports say officials are considering murder charges against him. But if history is any indication, those charges – if they come at all – may not stick.

Every situation is different, but the details of this event are far from uncommon. After hearing story after story about police shootings, many wonder why so few officers who do use lethal force in situations where it appears unwarranted are convicted. Phillip Lyons, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University, says it’s hard to know if the numbers add up.

The Huffington Post reported that in 2015, no police officers were convicted of murder or manslaughter in fatal on-duty shootings. The number was the same for 2014.

"We'd like to think that the low number of convictions probably results from the fact that the officers are doing the right thing in the vast majority of these cases,” Lyons says. “But it's hard to know for sure."

Police don't have any greater authority than anyone else does to use deadly force, Lyons says, though there is a statute in Texas that authorizes police to use deadly force in the context of making arrests. But overlaying that statute is the Fourth Amendment, which requires that the force used be reasonable and necessary under the circumstances.

"Officers are really only authorized to use deadly force when there's an imminent threat to themselves or to some third party,” Lyons says. “The only really different treatment that officers receive is that typically they are not arrested at the scene when these incidents occur.”

Officers are easier to keep tabs on, Lyons says, so they aren’t usually arrested.

While it sometimes seems that the investigative process of an officer-involved fatal shooting takes longer than the investigation into other types of fatal shootings, Lyons says, it would be surprising to learn that’s actually the case.

"When the police are involved in a shooting there is much greater attention, there is much greater pressure,” he says. “Questions are asked more often and more quickly and so it may seem as though the process is taking longer.”

How officers are treated during an investigation into an officer-involved fatal shooting depends on the quality and quantity of evidence, and how quickly the evidence is obtained, Lyons says.

"I would not be surprised [to see] much quicker dispositions of administrative cases now, in light of ever-increasing reliance on in-car cameras,” he says, “and the ubiquitous use of cell phone cameras. Nowadays it's much easier to get much more compelling evidence very quickly."

Lyons says to also keep in mind that there are normally two parallel investigations going on in these incidents. The agency is determining what administrative sanctions ought to be imposed and a criminal investigation is underway - often by both the agency and the district attorney's office or grand jury.

Depending on the circumstances, there may also be a federal investigation or civil investigations being conducted concurrently.

"Given the broad powers that the police have to restrict individual liberties and even, in this case, to use deadly force in the context of a Democratic society,” Lyons says, “there should be a lot of concern and attention that gets focused on that.”

But the low number of convictions sounds right to Lyons.

“If the officers are doing the right thing then we would expect there to be a lot of investigation, a lot of attention, but not a lot of convictions," he says.

How these investigations proceed has changed with the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, Lyons says. There’s greater responsiveness to community concerns and a greater amount of pressure on law enforcement agencies to respond. In the past, the tendency was for agencies to let the investigation play out, but now that’s harder to do.

"There's pressure on the agencies to respond quickly,” Lyons says. “Unfortunately, that means that sometimes they may be responding before the evidence is all in and I don't consider it bad news that the Balch Springs police chief changed the story or changed the position of the agency. I think there was probably pressure to come out with something based on what was known and understood at the time, and as the knowledge and understanding of that changed I would expect the police agency’s response to change along with that.”

Written by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

Rhonda joined KUT in late 2013 as producer for the station's new daily news program, Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.
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